Hammer Head: The Whiskey with a ‘Rags to Riches’ Story

The rediscovered whisky takes center stage on the Czech market

The scent has floral notes, a whiff of sweet vanilla, walnuts, almonds and coffee beans. The taste is strong and warm with hints of anise, cinnamon and a tinge of bergamot. The finish is crisp and herbal with a faint essence of tobacco. This is how whisky experts describe the years after the velvet revolution rediscovered Hammer Head. But how was this Czech single malt whisky ever forgotten?

Hammer Head, produced in Prádlo in Western Czechoslovakia, went off the radar in 1989. Keith Allison, a visiting professor (contributor) to a popular blog called The Alcohol Professor explains the story of its rise to fame and subsequent disappearance.

The demand for an affordable Czech whisky came during Communist times when staggering prices of the select few imported whiskeys left working-class Czechoslovaks high and dry. With years of experience making other types of spirits, Vaclav Stiner, a distiller at Prádlo decided to take things into his own hands. Limited by the travel-bans of the Soviet Union, he and his team read books about Scottish whisky distilleries and began a trying process of trial and error.

After discovering that Czech peat didn’t do the trick, Prádlo invested in shipping peat directly from Scotland which wasn’t cheap. By 1984, Stiner was mass-producing whiskey and the public reaction couldn’t be more positive. But in 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall cast a shadow on Hammer Head as Scottish and Irish whiskeys took over the newly re-opened Czech market. With no more demand for a cheap whisky, Czechs quickly forgot that they had ever produced any in the first place.

For 20 years the barrels, made specifically for the whisky out of Czech oak, gathered dust in the warehouse of the distillery while the last batch of 83,000 bottles worth of Hammer Head aged inside their meticulously constructed bellies. The disregarded barrels were purchased as part of the distillery by a London-based company. After sampling the mysterious contents of the barrels, Stock Spirits was unexpectedly impressed and named the whisky after the 1928 hammer mill at the distillery.

Today, Hammer Head is available for purchase online but also offered in drams at a select number of bars in Prague, including at the Whiskeria. It is no longer the cheapest whisky on the menu, its price inflated by the dramatic tale, vintage aspect and limited availability. Costing up to four times as much as other Czech whiskeys, Hammer Head matches even some Scottish and Irish whiskeys in price.

Its competitors on the Czech market, the Gold Cock and Printer’s Whiskey have a hard time competing. The Whiskeria even uses the words “quality attempt” in the description of Gold Cock which can give connoisseurs a negative predisposition. Meanwhile Hammer Head’s colorful history attracts whisky fans from all over the world.

While the reaction to the Czech whisky is mostly positive, there are some discrepancies about the taste. What some describe as a floral scent is considered fruity by others. Some smell toasted malt and wood polish; others taste leather and hints of lemon. Keith, the beer professor, goes as far as comparing it to Scottish Auchentoshan whisky. Pepper and caramel scents and flavors that change with added water are also commonly described.

Stock Spirits - Hammer Head

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